PHILADELPHIA -- Nearly four decades after becoming the first American symphony to tour Communist China, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced it will embark on a cultural exchange to find and nurture young Chinese musicians and composers and bring orchestral music to audiences beyond the biggest cities.
A delegation representing Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts and Philadelphia orchestra officials signed an official agreement Thursday in Washington to kick off the program starting next May. It will be launched as a one-year pilot but is expected to continue beyond that, orchestra officials said.
The announcement is a bright spot, and intends to show a strong vote of confidence, for an organization that stunned music lovers in April by becoming the first major U.S. orchestra to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. The world renowned 111-year-old ensemble has struggled with dwindling attendance and donations, shrinking endowment income, the recession and an aging audience.
"This is a unique pilot for a long-term relationship with China, with whom we have had a historic connection for 40 years," orchestra president and chief executive officer Allison Vulgamore said, "and it is a clear signal that our cultural ambassador role in the future is not only intact from our point of view but from the point of view of our partners in China."
The fine details are still being worked out but the partnership aims to find and nurture young Chinese musicians as orchestral players and identify a Chinese composer to create a new work that the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform at the end of the program's first year. Other plans include performances by the orchestra at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing and workshops and master classes in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin, one of Philadelphia's "sister" cities.
"There's an incredible relationship between the people of China and this orchestra," Vulgamore said. "We're returning to that relationship but reinventing it a little bit."
Legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy wrote to President Richard Nixon in 1971 proposing his ensemble embark on a tour of China. After two years of negotiations, and as the U.S. was resuming diplomatic ties with China, the Philadelphia Orchestra was invited by the Chinese government to perform a total of six concerts in Beijing and Shanghai in September 1973.
Widely judged a musical and political success, the historic two-week visit by the "Fabulous Philadelphians" helped initiate the return of Western culture to China at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.
The ensemble has performed in China three times since that first State Department-sponsored trip, most recently in 2010. The idea for a U.S.-China collaboration began at a Beijing concert that year – when Vulgamore, then the orchestra's brand-new CEO, met Ambassador Nicholas Platt, who as a young diplomat led the planning of the 1973 tour.
"We said, we need to talk about the legacy of the Philadelphia Orchestra and this incredible country and what happens next," she said.
Platt said the 1973 Ormandy concert "transformed the way the Chinese looked at music" and planted the seeds of a continuing cultural exchange between the two nations.
"The heart of the U.S.-China relationship is people-to-people," he said, "whether it's trade, investment, sports, those relationships anchor what we do as governments."
Since the groundbreaking 1973 concert, Platt said Chinese cities have built 80 new concert halls and a similar number of new conservatories "but to be quite frank it's rather difficult for those new provincial organizations to get close to a world class orchestra."
"This provides that opportunity for that to happen," he said. "They've built the hardware and we're helping them with the software."